Want to Fight Ebola? Help Liberia Invest in Toilets.
Preventing epidemics in the developing world starts with a focus on basic hygiene.
As my country continues to recover from the ravages of Ebola, we hope that we have won the battle. But we have certainly not yet won the war.
The shadows of that horrifying crisis, which claimed more than 4,800 lives in Liberia alone, still linger. It will take time for our nation to fully recover, psychologically and financially, from that descent back into poverty, death, and fear — the kind we thought we had left behind after the end of our last civil war in 2003.
Before the crisis, our economy was growing at 7.5 percent, and we were making steady progress. Now, we again find ourselves rebuilding; our neighbors, Sierra Leone and Guinea, are still working toward defeating Ebola. Our priority is to revisit how we deliver the basics of life to our people, including safe water, sanitation, and hygiene.
During a special U.N. summit in New York this past weekend, member states formally adopted new Global Goals for sustainable development. Delivering water, sanitation, and hygiene to everyone, everywhere, is goal No. 6. Organizations, including the international water and sanitation charity WaterAid, have been working toward this achievement for years in order to build on the progress made in reaching the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which expire this year. Goal six is a critical component of ending extreme poverty and building healthier, more sustainable communities, touching on health, education, gender rights, and the challenges of urbanization.
As we have prepared for this landmark moment and for the work that now must follow, the lessons of Ebola that we learned so painfully should serve as lessons for the entire world. How could clinics contain this disease, for instance, when in many cases doctors and nurses lacked clean, reliable running water, functioning toilets, incinerators, and other equipment to ensure rigorous hygiene? These health-care workers are our heroes. Now more than ever, they and their counterparts around the world deserve facilities to help them properly care for their patients and allow them to work in a dignified, clean environment.
Our schools, too, need our attention now. Students kept from their lessons by the crisis for so long, with schools closed for months to prevent Ebola’s spread, now understand only too well the need for their schools to be equipped with safe water, decent latrines, and basins with soap. Girls would not feel so pressured to drop out when they begin menstruating, and all students would be cleaner and healthier as they return to their desks. Students everywhere deserve to be able to drink clean water and use a safe toilet at school.
Sanitation, however, is not an easy matter to discuss. Openings of health clinics, schools, roads, and airports are marked with ribbon-cuttings and are attended by VIP guests to greet them as important additions to communities and the wider economy. So why not new toilets?
Sanitation is the key to healthy, dignified, productive living and strong communities. Good hygiene is inextricably linked to this. In the developed world, hospitals and restaurants are expected to provide visitors and staff with basins and soap, and they often include signs as reminders to use them. Such simple, critical acts prevent illness, but are often neglected in the developing world. Measuring progress toward clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in homes, schools, and hospitals will be an important component of achieving the new Global Goals, both in Liberia and around the world.
Liberia rose to the challenge posed by Ebola, moving past its fears to stand together as a country. Now, we have an opportunity to build on this renewed sense of responsibility for our communities and the people in them. We are invigorated.
But as long as pandemic viral diseases like Ebola have the opportunity to thrive in unhygienic environments, as long as children succumb to chronic diarrhea from the fecal matter contaminating their food and water, as long as mothers lose newborn babies to terrible, preventable infections — as long as all of these problems exist, Liberia’s people cannot reach their full potential and achieve the new future that the Global Goals set out before us.
The health crisis of illness, death, and malnutrition that comes from dirty water and poor sanitation, the same one that helped spread Ebola so quickly, persists not only in Liberia but across the developing world. More than 650 million people in the world are without clean drinking water, and over 2.3 billion have no access to a basic, private toilet.
The responsibility of implementing these Global Goals, making sure foreign aid commitments are met, and ensuring that both developed and developing countries prioritize water, sanitation, and hygiene falls on all governments. We need to measure progress in homes, in schools, and particularly in clinics and hospitals because these constitute the foundation of robust health systems. We must address this silent crisis now, just as we in Liberia confronted and defeated the Ebola crisis with unity and conviction.
The Global Goals represent a renewed call for action. We will hear strong words this week at the United Nations, but the work really begins when my fellow heads of state return to their countries. With sufficient political will and financing, we can build on this momentum and ensure that everyone — including the poor and marginalized, the disabled, the old, and those in remote rural areas — has the right to good health, water, sanitation, and dignity. This is what we owe the next generation.
Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News